In the vast hinterland where 800 million peasants dwell, isolated, tiny meetings in humble homes have multiplied into vast networks with thousands of churches and millions of members governed by strong leaders. Meanwhile, as urban migration has swelled the population of hundreds of cities, small Bible studies have mushroomed into a veritable forest of congregations, many of them comprised of intellectuals from the most prestigious universities.
Once-closed churches have been opened, and now offer multiple services to standing-room-only crowds of Christians and eager seekers from all walks of life, every age group, and both sexes – contradicting communist propaganda that religious faith is the futile refuge of old women and their gullible grandchildren.
With such stunning growth have come both unprecedented opportunities and daunting challenges, creating a true crisis in the original sense of the term, and illustrated by the well-known Chinese character.
Let us consider, first, the context in which Chinese Christians find themselves; then the nature of the Chinese church; and finally some ways in which believers in China can turn this crisis into a moment and a movement that transforms not only their culture but takes the faith to the far reaches of the globe.
Context of Chinese Church
We can view the setting in which Christians find themselves from a variety of perspectives, but we shall just mention a few of them: (1) The historical legacy, including foreign connections; state control and even opposition, and the heroic response of Christians to opposition; and (2) the current context, including economic factors; religious pluralism; political pressures; and psychological environment.
Historical legacyConsidered broadly, Christianity in China possesses a long history.
If recent findings are authentic, the Christian faith may have reached the Middle Kingdom as early as the second century. At any rate, we know that the so-called Nestorian church – which can more accurately be called the Persian, or Syrian church - sent missionaries, starting with fabled Alopen, to the Tang Dynasty court in the 7th century.
Franciscan monks were dispatched to convert the Mongols during the reign of Kublai Khan. Centuries after both they and the Nestorians had been banned and banished, Jesuits gained a foothold in Beijing, where they succeeded in persuading thousands of Han Chinese to accept the Roman Catholic religion. Some of these were officials of the court, and even one emperor can with some credence be called an “almost Christian.”
More Franciscans and Dominicans followed in their train, and all were gaining adherents until the “Rites Controversy” so angered the Emperor that he banned all Christian activity and forced Roman Catholic missionaries into hiding.
In 1807, Robert Morrison, an Englishman, arrived on the fringe of China to begin the arduous work of learning the language and translating the entire Bible into Chinese for the first time. Dozens of meetings are planned to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of this momentous event.
Over the next 142 years, amidst national and local upheavals, famine, floods, anti-foreign movements, and rapid political and social change, both missionaries and Chinese Christians labored long and hard to spread the message of salvation through faith in Christ among China’s millions. Foreigners came from a number of Western countries - notably Protestants from Great Britain and the United States and Roman Catholics from France - and a variety of religious backgrounds.
Sometimes welcomed by the people, often opposed, especially by the educated Confucian elite who led society, they persevered until Christian congregations could be found all across the land. Their Chinese colleagues were indispensable partners, and usually took the lead in evangelism, though sometimes their vital contribution did not receive the recognition in the West that it deserved.
In the 20th century, a number of indigenous Chinese Protestant churches and organizations emerged, including the Little Flock led by Watchman Nee and the True Jesus Church with its communal living. Individual pastors like Wang Mingdao and powerful itinerant evangelists like John Sung gained thousands of converts, including many educated people. Though not unfriendly to Western missionaries, they demonstrated what a truly “Chinese” church – self-propagating, self-supporting, self-governing – would look like.
After the Communist victory in 1949, Chinese Christians found themselves in an entirely new situation. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants were forced to choose, either to join government-sponsored “Patriotic” movements, or to remain free of government control. In time, the screws were tightened, until only the official, state-recognized organizations were able to operate openly, and even these were gradually reduced in numbers and activities.
When the Great Cultural Revolution plunged the entire nation into chaos and confusion, in the mid-sixties and early seventies, even those officially-sanctioned entities found themselves under attack in the general assault upon all that was “old,” including religion. All churches were closed; pastors and priests shared prison cells; believers were hounded, harassed, hunted down and often beaten, imprisoned, or killed. But they were not alone in their suffering, for no one, not even the highest official, was safe from sudden attack and public humiliation. Everyone in the cities, and many in the countryside, went through more than ten years of terror.
Meanwhile, a number of observers on the outside pronounced Chinese Christianity dead. No news from within seemed to indicate that there was nothing to report, that faith had been extinguished, and the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of missionaries and Chinese Christians alike had all been in vain.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Unseen by outsiders, the flames of faith flickered in the lives of those who refused to give in. Manacled old men in dank prisons, little old women in their shuttered homes, and a growing number of young believers tenaciously kept the faith, and even shared it, despite the cost.
Soon reports began to break through the Bamboo Curtain that, in fact, Christianity had not died. Indeed, it had not only survived, but seeds had been sown that would soon produce a rich harvest. In the darkest days when suicide was common, Christians alone seemed to possess a power to persevere, to praise God at all times, and to possess a peace that passed all understanding.
Thirty years later, we now know that one of the greatest periods of church growth in Christian history was about to take place, soon to burst upon the scene in what the frightened Chinese government called “Christianity fever.” In the words of Tony Lambert’s authoritative books, we now talk of “The Resurrection of the Chinese Church,” and “China’s Christian Millions.”
Foreign connectionsWith such a legacy, one might imagine that Chinese Christians would enjoy an assured place in society. To some degree, that is true, for more and more Chinese recognize the contribution which Christians have made to the good of the nation, and acknowledge their moral excellence, which stands in marked contrast to the general decay around them. Furthermore, the recent interest in, and acceptance of, things foreign, has produced an openness to Christianity as a force for modernization among many.
On the other hand, a major obstacle impedes full acceptance of Christianity by the government: Its foreign connections.
Though Buddhism entered China from India, it has been so sinicized over the past fifteen hundred years that few consider it a foreign religion. Nestorian Christianity came only a century later, but for a variety of reasons, including its clear association with first Persia and then Syria, never gained acceptance as a “Chinese” faith.
The Roman Catholic missionaries who sought the favor of the Mongol court achieved significance success, but were victims of the general rejection of foreign rule when the Mongols were expelled. At first, the Jesuits won the admiration, then the allegiance of prominent Ming and later Qing officials. But when the Pope decided against their interpretation of ancestor worship in the Rites Controversy, an irate emperor proscribed both the Jesuits and their Franciscan and Dominican detractors, on the grounds that no foreign ruler should interfere with China’s internal affairs.
Worst of all, however, was the connection of both Protestant and Roman Catholic missionary efforts with the aggression of Western powers in the 19th century. Britain blasted open China’s doors for trade, particularly the importation of the opium that was eating the heart out of the culture and its leaders. France, Germany, and even the United States gained one advantage after another in a series of one-sided wars and the resulting treaties, which the Chinese termed “unequal.”
We can hardly imagine the resentment, even rage, which the memory of these events, constantly fueled by successive governments, engenders in all educated Chinese. They are taught that Christianity arrived with the gunboats and opium trade, and that is partly true. No matter that missionaries universally deplored, and sought to ban, the odious importation of opium. Too many of them, especially Roman Catholics who were backed by the French government, either sought or welcomed special privileges won at the point of the bayonet.
Thus, when the American government seeks religious freedom for Chinese believers today, the Chinese counter with a renewed assertion of national sovereignty and accuse Chinese Christians of being allied with the United States and its perceived intention to “contain” China’s legitimate expansion and even overthrow the Communist regime.
Which brings us to another aspect of the context in which the Chinese church finds itself:
Thus, Buddhist, Daoist, and Christian clergy, activities, and buildings have been variously supported, circumscribed, or even banned by different emperors over the course of the centuries. Even in Taiwan today, where religious freedom is total, all religious entities must register with the government.
The Communists continued this long tradition of state control, but with a new vehemence and passion, for their materialistic atheism became the new state orthodoxy that could brook no rival, and their claim to inaugurate the equivalent of the kingdom of God on earth allowed no competitors.
As we noted above, all religious bodies in China must belong to one of the “patriotic” associations that come under the Religious Affairs Bureau,. Thus, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the parallel China Christian Council becomes the only legitimate expression of Protestantism. Its clergy must be approved by the Communist Party cadre assigned to each church, and its first priority must be to promote socialism. Under the so-called “three designates” rule, they must meet in designated places, at designated times, and under the leadership of designated personnel.
Unregistered groups, whether openly-meeting “house churches” or “underground churches” that seek to elude notice, represent willful disobedience, and are accused not only of lacking patriotic fervor, but of being a threat to national security. All the more suspect are those which receive any sort of assistance from foreigners, who are assumed to be agents of Western, and particularly American, attempts to de-stabilize and even overthrow the Communist regime.
State oppositionFor these reasons, almost since the beginning of Communist rule in China, the church has encountered state opposition. Permits to register may be refused, after potentially incriminating evidence has been submitted as part of the application process. Individual believers may find the doors shut to advancement. Leaders are rounded up, arrested, interrogated, often beaten, imprisoned, sometimes tortured, and not infrequently killed. This takes place even today, although repression tends to be cyclical and varies according to locale and the attitude of individual officials.
True, thousands of churches remain open and millions of believers gather for weekly worship. But Bibles can only be purchased legally from a Three-Self bookstore and the threat of dissolution or worse hangs over many thousands of unregistered congregations.
In fact, for the past two years, a very harsh crackdown has netted hundreds of church leaders and sent others into hiding. Even Three-Self pastors may get into trouble, if they are too zealous for the faith and the growth of the church.
Despite such opposition, both foreign and Chinese Christians have carried on bravely, willing to endure suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Whether in times of widespread and extreme persecution, such as during the Boxer Rebellion and the Great Cultural Revolution, or when sporadic or even chronic local hostility has been directed at believers, leaders and laity alike have evinced courage worthy of the ancient martyrs of Christ.
Such is the legacy bequeathed to China’s Christian millions today. Now let us glance at other pieces of the complex mosaic that makes up the context of the Chinese church.
Current contextEconomic pressures
Though Marx’s obsession with economics has proved inadequate as a diagnostic tool, we cannot underestimate the influence of economic factors upon Christians and those whom they seek to attract into Christ’s fold.
Let’s begin with the rural church. The World Bank estimates that over 500 million Chinese peasants live in poverty. They are absolutely poor, with not enough money for adequate food, clothing, shelter, not to mention education or medical care. That is twice the population of the United States mired in disease, destitution, and despair of future improvement.
With little opportunity in the countryside, hundreds of millions have migrated to the cities and towns of China, in the largest movement of population in history. Thus, entire villages have been emptied of their able-bodied men and young people, as anyone who saw the movie, The Road Home, will remember.
The churches, too, have been decimated, as their best and brightest leave for jobs elsewhere. Moving into the urban areas, they are absorbed into city life. One poor man described it to me thus: “In the city, the big fish eat the little fish, and the little fish eat the shrimp.”
Church leaders constantly bemoan the seduction by materialism, modernization, and urbanization that threatens to accomplish what persecution could not, the adulteration of their once-pure faith by the love of the world and the worship of Mammon.
Urban churches are almost overwhelmed by a bewildering array of challenges, including unemployment for millions, as state-owned enterprises are allowed to go belly-up; lack of medical care, education, and even the necessities for those who can’t find jobs, or can’t afford to pay for services once provided, however minimally, by the state; dizzying wealth for many who are able, or well-connected, enough to profit from the truly stunning growth of China’s economy; incessant demands by employers who can replace you in five minutes; a fast pace that allows little or no time for reflection, Bible reading, or prayer.
Overall, China’s leaders worry day and night about widening gap between the rich and the poor – one of the largest in the world; the yawning discrepancy between rural want and urban wealth; and the social unrest that has developed from a still, small voice into an incessant rumble.
As men leave the village, despair stalks the women they leave behind to tend the animals, till the land, teach the children, and take care of all the affairs of the community. Alone among the nations of the world, China’s country folk commit suicide more often than do urbanites; and women kill themselves more than men. Christians are not immune to the forces of darkness pressing down upon their neighbors.
We have already noted some of the effects of economic growth upon the urban church, such as intense competition, constant pressure, stress. To these we may add the attractions of Vanity Fair: Entertainment, a vast array of consumer products and money to acquire them; fashion, worldliness, sophistication; the challenge of facing rapid social change; demolition of ancient neighborhoods and the construction of shining new high-rise apartment buildings; separation of the generations not only through the inevitable gap of cultures but also now distance and the rush to succeed.
We shall not be surprised, therefore, to learn of a tremendous moral collapse. A huge proportion of unmarried young people are sexually active; adultery is common, and the divorce rate has climbed to unprecedented heights. More than half of China’s married women complain of physical abuse.
The “one-child policy” has birthed a number of unintended progeny, among them the phenomenon of so-call “little emperors” spoiled by the solicitous care of two parents and four grandparents. With millennia of teaching that bearing a son is the most filial act one can perform, who would have thought that young people, who are legally barred from marrying before their mid-twenties, would actually delay marriage, postpone having children until their careers are established, or even forego parenting altogether? No wonder social critics and even the government itself are worrying about an epidemic of radical self-centeredness.
Older Chinese complain that all that matters now is getting ahead. Those who have to care for them counter that mere survival is often at stake. No matter how you explain it, no one denies that an obsession with material comfort and prestige has gripped China’s millions in a way never before seen. Anything goes. Lying and cheating at work and in school are almost universal. Once you could walk the streets unafraid, but now violent crime of all sorts has spawned tension and fear, though foreigners are still generally safe.
But people are not just workers and consumers. Created for meaningful relationships, we languish without them. Across the land, an obvious loss of meaning and a corrosive relativism combine with a profound love-hunger that demands satisfaction. Western movies compete with those from Japan to foster a new romanticism, fed also by love songs by pop idols in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and now China itself. The human spirit will not be satisfied by possessions, position, prestige, power or even pleasure.
Globalization, accelerated by China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, has transformed hundreds of cities in China, as it has enormously multiplied contact with foreigners. Arriving by the hundreds of thousands for business, education, and tourism, people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South East Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America have brought more than their money and their expertise. New ideas and fresh ways of doing things have raised questions about China’s tradition and culture in a way, and on a scale, that exceeds even the period from the Opium Wars to World War II.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Chinese, most of them educated but some coming from the lower classes, have gone overseas – also to study, do business, or simply see the sights. The resulting sophistication and broadening of perspective have stretched the horizons of both those who have gone and those they left behind, as letters, phone calls, and emails carry tales of a new world hitherto only seen in moves and on the television. Of course, many romantic notions of America and Europe are shattered by close encounters with the real thing, but the entire experience continues to reverberate throughout all strata of Chinese society in an ever-widening ring of impulses that will certainly shake the foundations of that ancient civilization.
Some of those who return have embraced, or at least been influenced by, Christian beliefs while overseas, and their impact is being felt in the church and the larger society.
Now let us consider the religious context of today’s Chinese church. Christianity has not been alone in its rapid growth and expansion. The same years have witnessed a resurgence of traditional religion, both rural and urban. For many, this means Buddhism in its Chinese forms. I have spoken to several ardent Buddhists from both the working and intellectual classes.
Much of what is called “Buddhism,” however, really includes traditional Chinese religion, with its multiple gods and saviors, newly-furbished temples, domestic shrines, festivals, and rituals. One scholar told me that every section of China has experienced such a revival of what the government terms “superstition.” A friend of ours said that their apartment was the only one in the entire high-rise from which the scent of incense could not be discerned during the fortnightly worship ceremonies.
After the massive campaigns about all things “old,” who would have thought that we would see Confucianism as a revived state-supported semi-cult? But the government has begun encouraging the study of Confucian writings in special classical schools and, like the emperors of old, the head of state has visited Confucius’ temple in Shandong.
Of course, Islam holds sway in certain areas, especially the strategic western provinces. The worldwide war on terror has provided more justification for a strict watch on potentially subversive elements in these areas.
As in dynastic times, a proliferation of sects, some of them millenarian, roil parts of the country. Falun Gong is perhaps the largest, best organized, and most familiar of these, but others, including pseudo-Christian movements like Eastern Lightening, seduce the unwary into a web of control and fervency that poses a threat not only to the church but to the larger society. Again, the government is quite concerned that one or more of them will turn into a modern-day version of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom that nearly toppled the Qing Dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century.
As the smiling images hanging from the mirrors of Beijing taxis demonstrate, the “worship” of Mao has become popular among the common folk. Leftists in the government and the academy have evinced a residual communism that has recently broken out into public meetings condemning reforms and calling for a return to doctrinal purity. Indeed, the government has committed “unlimited funds” to Marxist research; has required all party members to attend study sessions at which speeches of Mao and Deng Xiaoping are read; and has vowed to make China the world center of Marxism.
All these developments pose a challenge to the church, but greater openness for legal religious expression continues to provide unprecedented opportunities. Despite the crackdown of the past two years, Christians are still able to believe, worship, and even bear witness to their faith in a variety of ways unknown twenty years ago. To take just one example: Students at the most prestigious university in Beijing can attend classes on Christian theology.
That brings us to the political context of today’s Chinese church. On the one hand, we have noted greater openness and freedom for legal religious groups and expression. Unlike in the days of the Cultural Revolution, the recognized religions are now allowed to meet, worship, study, publish materials, and engage in charitable efforts.
On the other hand, there is the increased pressure on unregistered churches of which we have spoken, with hundreds of church leaders being rounded up in the past year. Heightened surveillance of foreign Christian activity, and particularly special attention given to work among students, has led to the expulsion of a number of foreign Christian workers. The government has evinced greater and greater intolerance of evangelism, and a growing hostility towards church growth.
Why is that? Perhaps they connect the threat of religious fervency with massive discontent with communist rule, and are afraid, as I said before, of collaboration among various groups, for Christian churches possess an organizational ability that clearly worries China’s rulers. Multiplying demonstrations, many of them large and violent, have led to stricter government reprisals, with the use of force becoming more and more common. Fearing loss of control in the countryside as well as in the city, Beijing has tightened its grip on several arenas, especially the information media: Newspapers, magazines, Internet – all have come under close surveillance and sometimes harsh suppression.
The result is a highly-volatile political climate, engaging the attention of the regime and spurring it to address disparities of wealth and inequities of administration. The fact is, however, that anti-corruption measures by the government, though meant to stem the rising tide of rage, will not work as long as the Party has a monopoly on power. No one knows how this is going to play out.
We turn now to the intellectual milieu in which Chinese believers find themselves. To say there is great ferment would be an understatement. Freedom to explore and discuss any and all issues in many contexts, including the Central Party School in Beijing, has spawned a jungle of competing ideological options, including Christianity. Western influences, such as modernism and post-modernism; traditional Chinese thinking, like Confucianism and Daoism; Communism – all these vie for the allegiance of the rising generation.
As a result, massive confusion reigns in the marketplace of ideas: Which way is best? The failure of other belief systems has left many thinking persons bewildered, groping for answers to the perennial questions in an environment shifting so fast hardly anyone can keep up.
Confucianism espouses fine ethics, but has been exploited by those in power for two thousand years, and has anyway never warmed the heart. Buddhism attracts high-minded souls, especially contemplative types, but cannot provide the theoretical foundations for a modern society. Despite its profound mystical strain and wise counsel for political leaders, Daoism fails to answer questions which press upon today’s thinkers and decision-makers.
The Communist bosses hope that a return to the thought of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Deng will re-invigorate a party demoralized by its impotence to control avarice and power-lust at all levels and confronted with the failures of the past, including horrific gratuitous violence and cruelty, not to mention socialism’s evident inability to produce the prosperity that it long ago promised, and that the free market has delivered so spectacularly in recent years. Many former and present Communists admit that virtually everyone in the system knows it is bankrupt.
The masses and even intellectuals in their superstitious moments will practice popular religion, but no one looks there for solutions to economic, social, political, or philosophical problems. And Islam will always be limited to particular ethnic minorities, not least because Chinese love to eat pork!
That basically leaves secular humanism, with its empty atheism; romantic, hedonistic relativism; nihilism; and Christianity. No wonder thousands of China’s finest minds, not to mention millions of its poor peasants, throng Christian meetings in search for light and life and love!
The mention of love brings us to the psychological environment of today’s Chinese church. In my opinion, this dimension is the decisive one for the future of the church.
Chinese hearts and minds are laden with an onerous burden from the past. How can they cope with anger over innumerable abuses; the confusion, chaos, and futility of various political “movements” that have convulsed society since 1949; and mindless terror, including unspeakable torture, directed against tens of millions?
The government’s one-child policy has inflicted forced abortions upon unwilling women, causing incalculable physical and emotional damage. A friend of mine who is a physician, and whose wife had had at least one abortion, shook his head sadly when he commented upon how callously women have been treated.
The Tian An Men incident of 1989 will not go away, despite government-sponsored re-writing of history. Citizens of Beijing cannot forget the wanton killing unleashed upon them when the army crushed the students.
Imagine what government corruption does to people – both the venal officials who live off its illicit gains, and irate citizens who have no recourse to justice under a system that regularly robs them. How do you handle a chronically bad conscience or the rage that simmers for years on end?
Government crackdowns have affected millions of citizens and security personnel. Guilt for participation in abuse must take its toll in the hearts of those who are party to the perpetration of terror which has characterized the communist regime from its inception in the 1920s. In the Great Cultural Revolution, tens of millions of young people subjected their teachers, elders, and even parents to shameful treatment, including beatings, torture, and death. Continued police brutality crushes the souls of those who endure it, but also sears the consciences of those who mete it out to innocent victims.
Participation in abortion; envy; greed; betrayal of family and friends; hatred of enemies; increasingly common sexual license; abandonment of spouse and children – all must foster a feeling of guilt and shame that cries out for consolation.
And, despite the sustained economic growth of the past decade, widespread anxiety over the future gnaws at the hearts of hundreds of millions caught up in the rush of events. Political uncertainty – who will be ruling China ten years from now? Will there be another leftist backlash? Economic uncertainty – will the feverish pace of growth continue, or will the bubble burst, as some experts predict? And social insecurity – what is my place in a society where everything is up for grabs, nothing is certain, and relationships built on the quid-pro-quo determine one’s fate?
In other words, for many it is the best of times, but for many more – deprived of the “iron rice bowl” that guaranteed employment, housing, health care, and education from the cradle to the grave – it feels like the worst of times. Though the description of Shanghai in the 1930s – “a thin layer of heaven covering a thick layer of hell” – may not now be quite accurate, since prosperity has spread to a far larger proportion of the population, nevertheless a high degree of angst plagues huge numbers of Chinese.
No wonder that one-third of China’s children are said to be depressed, and that suicide has risen to epidemic proportions!
The Nature of the Chinese ChurchSo what is the Chinese church – and here I shall focus on the Protestants, with whom I am more familiar – embedded in this complicated context?
Right away, we must acknowledge the complexity of the church itself. There are the officially-sanctioned Three-Self patriotic Movement churches; “house” churches that have registered with the government; unregistered but “open” house churches; and “secret” or “underground” “house churches,” as well as a plethora of small Bible study groups and informal associations of believers or seekers. Some of these groups may overlap with others, and relationships between and among them may range from cordial cooperation to hostile competition and even confrontation.
House churches & underground churches
Beginning with the rural house churches, we have already noted explosive numerical growth, with perhaps 50 million believers associated in one way or another with Christian congregations. This has come about as a result of evangelistic zeal and heroic efforts, and has led, as I said at the beginning, to huge movements, though the recent persecution has decapitated some networks and forced a decentralization into smaller organizations.
Strong organization at all levels enables both rapid growth and survival amidst frequent persecution. Migration to the cities, however, has robbed these churches of many of their members. Still others have fallen prey to sects and heresies, largely because of the lack of strong biblical teaching among illiterate congregations.
Urban “house” churches have tended to be quite traditional, following the “Patriarchs” of the earlier part of the 20th century who left a legacy of firm commitment to orthodoxy based on a high view of the authority of the Scriptures and typical Chinese conservatism. Seekers and new believers from the educated elite have often found it hard to fit into these congregations.
Increasingly, however more and more intellectuals have formed their own Bible studies and house churches, sometimes termed “emerging churches.” Bright, sophisticated, well-placed in society, many have returned from overseas, bringing the faith with them. In what can almost be called a wildfire movement among elite, including Communists, this new phenomenon holds the potential for the conversion of Chinese culture from the inside.
On the fringes of the church, or completely outside its walls, are the so-called “culture Christians.” Scholars in the new centers for the study of Christianity in China study Christianity from an academic perspective, looking especially for its relevance to the transformation of Chinese society. The Global China Center seeks to engage in dialogue with these highly-intelligent and well-read seekers.
We should not forget the large Christian contingent living outside of Mainland China, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South East Asia, North and South America, England, Europe, Australasia, and even Africa and the Middle East. Some are Cantonese-speaking churches, reflecting Hong Kong’s status as a colony. More and more Mandarin-speaking congregations have sprouted up in recent years, as scholars have come abroad to study.
Many can testify to their energy, commitment, sophistication, and world-wide influence.
In Megatrends Asia, John Naisbitt identified the rise of China as the major development not only of modern times but of all human history. He further observed that the overseas Chinese play the leading role in this development, and will continue to do so. I would add that the overseas Chinese Christians will be major actors in the emerging drama of the expansion of the Christian faith both within China around the world. In July, I hope to attend the Chinese Congress of World Evangelization, which takes place every five years, and which will meeting Macau to remember the pioneer work of Robert Morrison, who is buried there.
What are the strengths of Protestant Chinese Christians? Most observers begin with their belief in the authority of the Bible and their adherence to its teachings, as traditionally understood. We must give due credit to their willingness to suffer; their typically-Chinese hard work; and evangelistic zeal.
Lately, we have seen also a developing theological strength and depth, solid scholarship, and critical interaction with their own culture.
Overseas Chinese Christians have demonstrated adaptability. Their mobility, wealth, and multi-lingual competence have fitted them for the kaleidoscope of openings and lightening-fast changes of the 21st century.
Lest we over-romanticize Chinese Christians, we should not ignore some of their weaknesses. These include a pietism which divorces the faith from everyday life and provides little equipment for reflection upon, dialogue with, and influence within, their society. Hierarchical organization often reflects the Chinese tradition of authoritarian leadership more than the servanthood of Christ, and pragmatism can lead to unnecessary compromise with moral and doctrinal laxity.
A focus on the worldly benefits of believing, such as peace and prosperity, opens the door for spurious “conversions” and much nominalism. One report states that “millions of Chinese Christians are one unanswered prayer away from apostasy.” Theological shallowness leaves them wide open, as we have seen, to the depradations of sects, heresies, and cults.
As David Aikman points out in his Jesus in Beijing, there is a preponderance of women. Though this speaks of the liberating message of the Gospel and grants new status and strength, it poses special problems: How are they to find Christian husbands? Where will tomorrow’s Christian families come from? How will the chronic shortage of elders and pastors be met? And how will the Gospel be communicated to men, who are likely to lead Chinese society in the future?
The Official Church
The government-sponsored church has also been growing and now numbers around 17 million, some of them in newly-registered house churches. They are largely free to conduct worship and theological education, active in social welfare projects, and open to contact with approved foreigners.
On the other hand, the official church is under control of Religious Affairs Bureau and thus the Chinese Communist Party, whose representatives must approve personnel selection. In addition, they are legally forbidden to teach people under 18 (though some congregations defy this rule); to meet outside of designated places; and to evangelize or operate outside of designated areas.
Bishop Ding Guangxun’s “theological reconstruction” program dilutes Protestant distinctives and promotes love as the essence of Christianity. He has sought to drive evangelicals from the TSPM and to build an essentially “liberal” or “social gospel” theology, with influence from Teilhard and Whitehead. Many TSPM seminaries have resisted this purge and most grassroots clergy and members remain theologically conservative. Furthermore, government surveillance locally and domination of the top leadership nationally hamper the official church and drive a wedge between it and the unregistered churches, who have often in the past suffered persecution at least indirectly instigated by the legal bodies.
ConclusionWe spoke at the beginning of a crisis – a moment of opportunity as well as of danger – facing the Chinese church.
- The church faces many daunting challenges, such as:
- Developing a theology which addresses uniquely Chinese concerns from a Biblical perspective.
- Avoiding syncretism and undue reverence for Chinese culture.
- Avoiding nationalism, which the government actively feeds under the rubric of true “patriotism.”
- Dealing with perennial Chinese weaknesses: authoritarian leaders; neglect of marriage and children; moralism; focus on worldly benefits; avoidance of necessary confrontation; obsession with “face”, including reputation, prestige, position; pre-occupation with worldly success; failure to admit wrong and ask forgiveness of others; subjectivism in making decisions; difficulty in cooperating with others (especially males); - to name a few.
At the same time, Christians are presented with amazing opportunities:
- Under the proper leadership, they may finally create a truly “Chinese” Christianity. To a great extent this has already been achieved, for Chinese Christians number in the millions over several centuries; many have made great contributions to Chinese society; Chinese churches are now almost always led by Chinese; Chinese theologians have made significant progress in the task of authentic contextualization.
- By contributing to obvious social needs and helping to solve urgent problems, they may not only win recognition for their good will but also point the way to a new and healthier society.
- Rooted in a rich tradition, working together, and relying on God’s power, Chinese Christians could address crying problems:
Biblical teaching and positive example could help stem the tide of family breakdown; divorce; and neglecting, or spoiling, children By showing that they have a better hope, Christians could challenge the pervasive lust for wealth and power Endemic depression could be met by a loving community, faith in the presence and power of God, and looking forward to an eternal future with God. Believers in Christ have already begun to show practical concern for the plight of the elderly, disabled, orphans, and AIDS/HIV sufferers.
The Biblical conviction that all of us are created in the image of God challenges the devaluation of women, either through abandonment of baby girls or in forcing women to act like men (i.e., succeed in the marketplace) in order to have worth
As in the Roman Empire, Christians can offer an alternative to rampant sexual license, which results in sexual-transmitted diseases, unwanted children, abandoned women, broken hearts, and broken families.
With a radical transformation of its own ethos, the church could demonstrate another way, that of servant leadership, to counter the systemic abuse of authority at all levels of Chinese society.
Authentic believers could function as salt and light as they live in, but not of, a world pervaded by corruption, including lying, cheating, stealing, and nepotism.
In a reversal of the traditional contempt for rural folk, Christians in cities are starting to build solid relationships with believers migrating in from the countryside.
As potentially violent rage towards the government rises to a boiling point, Christians show how to submit to evil rulers even while promoting righteousness by word and deed.
The Christian doctrine of the forgiveness of sins surely speaks to the crippling guilt that comes from generations of self-centered living, and to the resentment towards parents, friends, spouses, work associates, and authority figures who have betrayed or hurt millions of Chinese.
If Chinese believers can address the felt needs of their countrymen, and both proclaim and demonstrate before a watching world a message and a lifestyle that reflects the light, life, and love of God, they can not only participate in the transformation of their own nation and culture, but share these blessings with the entire world.